You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Dark Side of Bill Gates’s Climate Techno-Optimism

Innovation can be extremely unequal.

Bill Gates gestures while speaking.
Mike Cohen/Getty Images
Bill Gates speaks at New York Times Dealbook in 2019.

“No” is probably not a word the world’s second-richest man is all that accustomed to hearing. Bill Gates, one might imagine, exists in a world of near-limitless possibility. When he throws money at things, they often happen: from an elaborate meal prepared by personal chefs to a revolution in personal computing. Why should the climate crisis be any different?

In the press tour for his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Gates has presented himself as having put his big engineer brain to work devising the path to solving climate change, shrugging off the fact that the politics haven’t caught up. It’s an audacious title for a book with a relatively limited scope. The core argument is that the world urgently needs to lower what he calls “Green Premiums”: the extra costs associated with no-carbon energy and other technologies as opposed to more polluting alternatives. The zero-carbon options worth deploying, he writes, are those “with no premium at all.” And so everything has to be poured into lowering them, creating “breakthroughs” that make climate goals look more realistic.

Gates doesn’t write off the role of government or think entrepreneurs—or billionaires, for that matter—can go it alone. But in the climate fight, the public sector’s role is to make private sector excellence possible. That means both greatly expanding public sector research and enacting more sweeping regulations and legislation—including clean energy standards and carbon prices—to help incentivize the adoption of green technologies. “In general,” Gates writes, “the government’s role is to invest in R&D when the private sector won’t because it can’t see how it will make a profit. Once it becomes clear how a company can make money, the private sector takes over.” Socialize the risk, in other words, and privatize the reward. Gates has taken a similar approach to vaccine development, engineering public-private partnerships that—while making impressive progress vaccinating millions around the world—have also left pharmaceutical companies calling the shots and reaping profits.

On Monday, Gates spoke at CERAWeek, an annual confab for the oil and gas industry. The goal in tackling climate change, Gates told author Daniel Yergin, is “to have hundreds and hundreds of great companies that are pursuing the things that will improve these metrics.” He pointed to his work in vaccines as a success story.

Gates has poured a fortune into transforming the vaccine industry, where his personal preferences and largesse are now central. But the results of that investment aren’t universally encouraging. When publicly funded researchers developing a Covid-19 vaccine at Oxford University planned to donate royalty-free licenses to manufacturers, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation intervened. As Kaiser Health News reports, the Foundation pushed the researchers—whose work it helped fund—into signing over exclusive rights. Oxford struck a deal with AstraZeneca, with no guarantee that the vaccine would be made available at low prices.

This was a pattern many other vaccines followed, absent Gates Foundation intervention. Basic research conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, Defense Department, and federally funded academic labs provided the building blocks for the Covid-19 vaccines, and the United States has spent $10.5 billion since the start of the pandemic to ramp up delivery. Moderna alone received some $1 billion from the U.S., having partnered directly with the NIH. Drugmakers have, notably, agreed to provide the vaccine at cost through the duration of the pandemic—but are also strong-arming governments to negotiate lucrative supply deals that insulate them from liability. And given that such deals are typically shrouded in secrecy, there’s also very little way to verify that vaccines are really being provided on a not-for-profit basis. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism found that Uganda paid three times what the EU was paying for the AstraZeneca vaccine. South Africa is paying double.

So far, just 10 high-income countries have received 75 percent of existing vaccine supplies. Divides exist in the U.S., too, albeit bound up in state-level distribution problems: As of early last month, just 5 percent of jabs had gone to Black Americans. Globally, the WHO reported around the same time that 130 countries housing some 2.5 billion people had yet to administer a single dose—a situation being referred to as “vaccine apartheid.” Moderna, meanwhile, expects to make billions. Ameet Sarpatwari, an epidemiologist and lawyer at Harvard Medical School who studies drug-pricing regulation, told Kaiser Health News that Covid-19 vaccine deployment has proceeded with “business as usual, where the manufacturers are getting exclusive rights and we are hoping on the basis of public sentiment that they will price their products responsibly.”

That the Gates Foundation pushed Oxford to abandon its donation plan fits within its “Global Access” approach to intellectual property. As Gates himself explained in 2011:

We fund research and we actually ourselves or our partners create intellectual property so that anything that is invented with our foundation money that goes to richer countries, we’re actually getting a return on that money. By doing that we have more money to devote for research into neglected diseases and the diseases of the poor. Now when our medicines go into the poor countries, they are always going in without any intellectual property fee, at very lowest cost pricing.

Private, proprietary control over life-saving intellectual property is key for the Foundation, even in pledging that vaccines will be accessible. That means striking a bargain with the companies it partners with on vaccine development and manufacturing. As Richard Wilder, associate legal counsel for the Foundation’s Global Health Program, said in 2013, firms and universities it works with agree that “the product will be accessible. But if there is a commercial advantage to be obtained by launching a technology in other markets or for other populations, they don’t want to give that up and we don’t want them to give it up because profitability in those other markets can make their work sustainable.” The Foundation’s model, in other words, rests on agreeing to get companies to offer lower prices in exchange for its funding. That’s allowed the development and distribution of life-saving vaccines. But at the end of the day the patent holders, not public interest, call the shots.

The potential damage from this intellectual property–forward approach to Covid vaccines was clear from the start. Way back in July 2020, months before the first vaccines had been approved, South African and Indian representatives to the World Trade Organization called on the organization to temporarily suspend intellectual property enforcement for Covid-19 vaccines and related products. The U.S., U.K., European Union, and several other vaccine-rich wealthy nations have continually blocked the proposal, which now has the support of 140 countries.

Biden early on in his administration announced that the U.S. would join COVAX, a global private-public partnership to ensure equitable vaccine access. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Anthony Fauci has further suggested the U.S. could work with pharmaceutical companies to relax patents and improve global manufacturing. On Tuesday, the White House announced its use of the Defense Production Act to get Merck and Johnson & Johnson to work together on accelerating vaccinations domestically. Still, just 27 percent of the most vulnerable developing countries are due to benefit from COVAX vaccines by the end of this year. And the unofficial summary of a WTO meeting last month seemed to confirm the White House will stay the course on intellectual property protections: “The U.S. reiterated that the intellectual property framework provides critical legal and commercial incentives to drive private entities to undertake the risk and make the appropriate investments.” Asked why it hadn’t supported the proposal from South Africa and India, the Gates Foundation told South Africa’s Mail & Guardian that “changing the rules wouldn’t make any additional vaccines available.”

Vaccine apartheid can hardly be blamed on Gates alone, obviously. But the vaccines’ disastrously unequal rollout does offer a preview for what enacting his vision of climate action could mean for a warming world.

Gates’s book doesn’t mention intellectual property rights, even though his entire model of incentivizing innovation depends on them. It’s an odd omission. Gates’s own fortune on Windows and Microsoft was amassed in no small part, economist Dean Baker has pointed out, through strategic patenting, including of research whose earliest stages had been sponsored by the government. The company has argued forcefully for the WTO to strengthen rules protecting intellectual property. And since leaving day-to-day operations, he’s been a prolific patent filer, including, in 2009, for technology to tame hurricanes. Gates’s multibillion-dollar fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures is funding green start-ups and a host of other low-carbon entrepreneurial projects, including everything from advanced nuclear technologies to synthetic breast milk. Its returns depend on those projects having patents to hold. But the fact that Gates could see modest (for him) profits if policymakers take his advice is less concerning than the advice itself.

Gates is offering policymakers a shiny-object approach to climate politics. It’s hard to argue against innovation: New technologies, including the majority of those Gates highlights, are indeed a critical part of the solution to climate change. Most models can’t figure out how to keep warming below 1.5 and two degrees Celsius (2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) without much cheaper and more efficient means of sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, for instance. But the heavier lifting of decarbonization has to be done as soon as humanly possible: remaking the grid, deploying massive amounts of clean energy, and decreasing fossil fuel production. The idea that climate action relies on a set of technologies that are always just around the bend deflects attention away from the lions’ share of the work, which can be done right away. As Gates reiterated in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, “The only value is to take our innovation power, which is the majority of the world, and bring green premiums down by 95 percent. That’s what the U.S. has to do. All the other stuff is just so much confusion.”

Carbon capturing and storage will play an important role fighting global warming, to be sure. But Gates’s move to place such things at the center of the decarbonization story helps explain why the American Petroleum Institute tweeted so approvingly about Gates’s message to CERAweek about the central importance of new technologies like green hydrogen. API chief Mike Sommers echoed the line that now dominates his industry, by now far too savvy to deny climate change outright: With no viable alternatives on offer, the world will continue to demand oil and gas. So, he says, “We have to invest in technologies to ensure that we’re producing them in the most environmentally responsible ways.”

Gates’s vision of how innovation works is equally troubling. His self-presentation as do-gooder engineer—quietly tinkering away at the world’s most pressing challenges—helps obscure a more unsettling worldview: that billionaires and a set of benevolent patent holders are those best equipped to make life-and-death decisions about who gets access to life-saving technologies from vaccines to green energy, and determine how much they should cost. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster sidesteps messy questions of distribution and democracy, instead casting the protagonists of the climate fight as genius entrepreneurs and the forward-thinking investors who fund them. Government has a big role to play, Gates says. But only insofar as it makes the plans developed by expert entrepreneurs possible. (More equitable taxation—which might compel Gates to give up a bit more of his hoarded wealth, rather than funding and controlling charitable projects of his choosing—doesn’t make the cut of his suggested policies.)

More edifying than Gates’s work on the innovation front is that of economist Mariana Mazzucato, an expert on innovation pathways and critic of patent hoarding. Rather than treating the state as a dowdy handmaiden to corporations, she argues, governments should see a return on the sorts of pioneering research they routinely fund already. That means governments deciding democratically where it is they want to go. A satisfying answer to that question, Mazzucato says—one capable of taking on a problem as big as the climate crisis—also demands a reevaluation of who it is that generates value. The geniuses writing code are important, though so are workers spanning supply chains and the dedicated public servants who rarely get the credit or compensation they deserve. “The retreat of the public sector has given way to the idea that entrepreneurship and wealth creation are the exclusive preserve of business,” Mazzucato wrote recently. “In fact, the more we subscribe to the myth of private-sector superiority, the worse off we will be in the face of future crises.”

In the world of climate discourse, Gates is what’s known as a techno-optimist. But his theory of change is one of benevolent intellectual property domination. Vaccine apartheid has been a preview for climate apartheid, and the perils of letting intellectual property rights determine who gets access to critical technologies. If Gates is able to perceive the huge costs of this model, he hasn’t let on.